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For a sweet 2020, look to the bitter in wine
MANY good wines have a built-in defence against being consumed by children: They are inherently bitter, a flavour that children seem genetically hard-wired to abhor. Eventually, taste buds evolve. Young adults come to love many bitter flavours, whether in beer, dark chocolate, arugula, Negronis, coffee or tea.
Despite the prevalence of bitter flavours in popular foods and beverages, many people resist the idea that bitterness can be a positive. The old saw has it that American wine consumers talk dry but drink sweet.The negative connotation of bitterness extends to wine descriptions. Despite the many examples of excellent wines that contain bitter flavours, no producers want to associate their wine with the word bitter. Few consumers would find such a description to be particularly attractive.
Wine marketers know that the public will flock to wines described as smooth, silky, velvety, fruit-forward, spicy, bold and rich. Bitter? Not so much.
I'm hoping that 2020 might be a year for rehabilitating the notion of bitterness in wine. I started to think about this on a trip in November to northern Italy, a land where bitter flavours seem to be built into the cuisine.
On arriving in Milan, I had dinner at Carlo e Camilla, a restaurant serving creative interpretations of northern Italian food in a beautifully restored old mill.
The place seemed more centered on cocktails than wine, not unlike many youth-oriented places in Italy these days, and everybody in the restaurant sat at long communal tables. Seeking a bit of warming comfort on a cold, rainy night, I ordered a glass of Valpolicella Classico, which might tell you something about the restaurant's wine list. Though Milan is the gateway to the Piedmont region of north-west Italy, one of the world's great wine regions, the selection had little regional gravity.
Regardless, I was delighted with the Valpolicella and its clear-as-a-bell flavours, ringing of tart cherry and ending with a refreshing bitterness that prompted the next sip.
The next day, I finished a quick pizza lunch with an espresso, pulled and poured into a tiny cup. It was the proverbial Italian coffee experience, just enough to bolt in one go.
With all the fussy coffee awareness in the United States, the obsession with single-origin beans and adjusting brewing machines to the barometric pressure, we still cannot make a decent espresso. This one was ideal: smooth, radiant in flavour, bitter at the end and perfectly refreshing.
That night at dinner at Trattoria Masuelli San Marco, a traditional Milanese restaurant with a blessedly regional wine list, I drank an excellent Barolo Bricco Delle Viole 2007 from GD Vajra, vibrant and expressive with a touch of welcome bitterness as the other flavours faded away.
These beverages, though very different, had in common that punctuating bitterness. In each case, it was both cleansing and revitalising, an acknowledgment of what had come before and a shift in attention to what would come next. It was like a mini New Year's Eve celebration in the mouth, closing out the old with a flourish, while preparing a fresh start.
This attractive bitterness is one component of a spectrum of flavours that evolve directly from the fermentation of wine grapes. Wine can offer other forms of bitterness that may not always be so pleasing. Tannic red wines can be astringent, a drying sensation in the mouth that can be experienced as bitter. Tannins that are part of a harmonious whole do not bother me, so long as they suit the intent of the wine.
I expect a top Barolo or Bordeaux to be tannic in youth. These tannins might be fine and barely detectable, yet firm enough to wrap up the flavours and nuances of the wines for quite a few years until they integrate. Then the youthful bitterness and astringency will largely evaporate to reveal the complexities within.
Similarly, a rustic young red from southern Italy might be robustly tannic yet still be a pleasure to drink, the astringency and bitterness of the tannins balancing out the sweet fruit.
Tannins generally come from the skins, seeds and stems of grapes, which is why white wines are rarely tannic. To provide wine with colour, red grapes are crushed and macerated with their skins, and sometimes seeds and stems. To avoid colour in white wines, the juice is whisked away from the pigment-bearing skins, with a notable exception.
That is the category of orange wines - white wines made as if they were reds, macerated with their skins until they take on an amber tinge. Depending on how long the juice stays in contact with the skins, these wines can become starkly tannic and quite bitter. It is all a matter of balance.
There is one other category of tannic bitterness, which unlike fruit bitterness I dislike intensely. That would be the bitter tannic quality that comes from new oak barrels. This bitterness differs from the integrated bitterness that comes from fruit. It seems to exist apart from the wine itself and rarely integrates over time. Unlike fruit-derived bitterness, it does not punctuate a series of flavors, it just hangs there.
I find the welcome sort of bitterness most often in Italian reds. It does not matter which region or what grape, it seems to cut across both, whether Valpolicella of the Veneto, Barbera d'Asti of the Piedmont, Chianti Classico of Tuscany, the aglianicos of Campania or the Etna Rossos of Sicily.
I find it in French wines, too, though not as pervasively. Good Beaujolais often has a welcome bitter component, as do the syrahs of the Northern Rhône, Bordeaux and cabernet francs of the Loire. In Spain, I sense it in traditionally made Riojas and the mencías of Ribeira Sacra.
Alcohol level plays a role, though. The higher the alcohol, particularly when you get to the range of 14.5 per cent and above, the more likely a wine's procession of flavours will culminate in sweetness rather than bitterness. This is partly because of the elevated amount of glycerol found in high-alcohol wines. The combination of fruitiness, alcohol and glycerol contributes to a perception of sweetness, even if the wine contains no residual sugar.
The alcohol level in American wines can often provide a clue as to whether the wine will have a refreshing snappiness, of which bitterness is a component, or a flabby sweetness.
Sweet flavours of course are highly popular, whether in some of America's most expensive cult wines or in mass-produced supermarket wines. I do not quibble with anybody who enjoys them.
But stay aware of the flavours that make so many red wines so delicious, as well as other foods. Perhaps we can make 2020 a bitter year, and I mean that in the best possible way. NYTIMES